Vesuvius on the Grand Tour

Colored print of the 1760 eruption of Vesuvius
The Vesuvius 1760 Eruption by Pietro Fabris

A little remembered active period of Mount Vesuvius, on Naples Bay in Italy, beginning in the 17th century and lasting into the early 19th century made the volcano a dramatic stop on The Grand Tour. The relatively benign eruptive phase during the height of Grand Tour travel enabled many visitors to view the spectacle of a volcanic eruption claiming vineyards on the slopes of the volcano. The erie upward glow of the lava flows at night provided a memorable sight that was painted by more than one artist. In his quintessential guidebook of the period Grand Tour: Containing an Exact Description of most of the Cities, Towns and Remarkable Places of Europe, first published in 1743, Thomas Nugent recommended a day trip to Vesuvius as one of the activities for any visitor to Naples.

A number of visitors recorded their impression of Vesuvius and many had themselves painted with the volcano in the background. German playwright Johann Wolfgrang von Goethe (1749-1832) wrote of his 1787 encounter with Vesuvius in his book Italian Journey and had himself painted by German artist Tischbein (1751-1829) among Roman ruins with a smoking Vesuvius in the distance. Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), the British ambassador to Naples from 1764 to 1800, took scientific observations of the volcano and had artists record the changes wrought in the volcano by the various eruptions. He published his observations in his books Campi Phlegraei and Supplement to the Campi Phlegraei in 1776 and 1779 respectively. The books contained a map and fifty-nine hand colored plates and were published in English, Italian, and French. The volumes quickly became a standard purchase for The Grand Tour traveler. A more ordinary tourist by the name of Katherine Wilmot wrote in lively prose of her visit to the volcano. She told of driving from Naples to Herculaneum in a carriage. From there, they proceeded by mule to about half way up the volcano's slopes. Then they walked, towed by ropes attached to their guide's waist. Katherine described walking through loose cinders and seeing deposits of sulphur and hotly smoking fissures. The day she visited the view of the famous Naples Bay from the height was not obscured by ash or clouds. Her Grand Tour letters were published as The Grand Tours of Katherine Wilmot.

Margaret Grenville witnessed an eruption of Mount Vesuvius while wintering in Naples on route to Constantinople where her husband was posted as ambassador. She wrote:

There was a magnificent eruption at Mount Vesuvius which created two streams of lava that winded down the hill a considerable length from our windows. At night it was really a glorious sight, and perfectly answered Mr. Burke's idea of the Sublime.

Burke's essay on The Sublime and Beautiful states that beauty is calming, harmonious, and symmetrical while the more powerful Sublime is majestic, uncontrollable, and terror inspiring. A painting by Joseph Wright of Derby titled Vesuvius in Eruption with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples embodied this philosophy by contrasting the Sublime experience of a volcanic eruption against the beauty of the Bay of Naples.

Though often overlooked in descriptions of The Grand Tour, the volcano Vesuvius was a much visited destination on the Italian leg of the tour. The awe inspiring sight witnessed by generations of Grand Tour travelers and memorialized in art and the written word should be restored to a place in The Grand Tour itinerary.


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